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Music, Mosquitoes and Memories

harrisonburg-high-band-campIt’s been a year since I last heard that fall sound, the sound of my youth, floating on the cooling air in our neighborhood of an afternoon, before the leaves have started changing but after the sky has started taking on its crisp, colder blue.

I sometimes hear the drums first, a deep distant beating, maybe embellished with the rattle of snare; or it might be the thin, bright sound of trumpets, playing in close bugle harmony, some confident, talented player squee-ing a third above the rest, a nice stratospheric high note that might get the Friday night crowds on their feet. The high school band down the hill from my neighborhood has started practicing for football.

But it’s not the Friday night lights that I remember best. I never figured out how football was played, those noisy, exciting evenings in the stands, holding a piccolo in one hand and a cup of hot chocolate in the other, watching high school players run back and forth on the field, the cheerleaders and the drummers accelerating the rhythm of the crowd. The old high school (part of which used to be the junior high) now belongs to the university, and last time I walked around, the stadium had been torn down – the bleachers, the scoreboard, the building where parents sold hot dogs and candy and drinks to raise money for the band.

I remember band camp.

We slept on metal-and-mattress bunk beds in cabins in the woods, with nothing between us and the snakes but screen and thin wood. We walked down a wooded dirt road four times a day to the marching field, where a football field had been mapped out in white spray paint, and we marched six hours a day, learning formations, memorizing music, holding our instruments at proper height, not moving a muscle as gnats swarmed around our faces and mosquitos attacked our ankles and sweat dripped down the backs of our necks. We were roused early on cool mornings before the sun was quite up, drank coffee with hot chocolate mixed in, warmed up in sweatshirts that were pulled off by mid-morning. During the day, we would knock on the wooden dining hall bulletin board to hear the colony of bats behind it squeak; they’d fly out in the evening, quiet, quick little shadows in the dusk; someone once counted somewhere around a hundred of them.

I miss it all. I miss five summers of a long school-bus ride into the middle of nowhere, a trip that took a few hours along roads that became smaller and smaller, through trees that became denser and denser, until we arrived at Powell’s Fort, in Powell’s Fort Valley in the forests of the Shenandoah Valley. The camp – cabins, a dining hall, bathhouses, a pool, a picnic shelter – had been there a long time. My father went there as a high school student, for 4-H, and my mother, for camps when she was in elementary school and junior high. I’ve seen pictures of her at the swimming pool (which, last I remember, was a bit green and inhabited by small frogs). Years after her time there as a camper, she came back as a parent, along with other band parents, staying a night (or more) each summer and cooking meals for the students.

Mr. Warner, our band director, was the organizing, driving force behind those years and those summers. I’m 38 years old and I still can’t call him “Jim” the too-infrequent times I see him these days. He’s still Mr. Warner. He did many things during the five years I played in the band (starting in eighth grade) and the four years my sister did. He kept the band room open during lunchtimes so we had a sanctuary, we odd kids who liked to eat lunch and then play music afterwards, hole up in a practice room and dig through songbooks. He organized student recitals, music theory classes, suggested we form a woodwind quintet, directed the school musical orchestra. He once broke a baton in frustration during rehearsal. It ended up pinned to the band room bulletin board with the note "beware of band director" attached. He picked up the ballpoint pens I’d leave everywhere absentmindedly and try to sell them back to me. And every year he spent a week in the woods with mosquitoes, bats, band parents and forty- or fifty-some high school band students.

I miss band camp. I miss the drum majors, with their grim expressions and teenage dignity, signaling the rest of us with claps, whistles, “Ten-shun!,” “At ease!” I miss rainy days when we’d practice inside, crowding the band into half the dining hall, saxophones and tubas and euphoniums and clarinets and flutes and trumpets and trombones and bass drums and cymbals. After practice, we’d play card games, or sing around the out-of-tune upright in the corner next to the fireplace. At night we’d watch movies, or send freshmen out snipe hunting, or walk out onto the hill below the dining hall to look at the stars. The last night, we’d always have a dance. Band camp was where I had my first deep, unrequited crush (he was a trumpet player). It was where I made friends I have today.

Powell’s Fort is no longer a camp. I don’t know what’s happened to the land. Mr. Warner has retired, and the high school band goes to another camp in the summer – a nice enough place, but considerably less rustic, much easier to get to, much easier to leave.


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